Ireland’s 40 constituencies made the unanimous decision last week to remove the law prohibiting blasphemy from the nation’s constitution. While no one has actually been prosecuted for blasphemy in Ireland for hundreds of years, the change was important to campaign groups such as Atheist Ireland and the Humanist Association of Ireland, the latter of whose chief executive explained that it marked “another significant milestone for Ireland in becoming a modern, secular and more compassionate society.” (Ireland legalized abortion via a landslide referendum victory in May 2018 and same-sex marriage in November 2015.)
The referendum was relatively uncontroversial. Voter turnout was low. And even Christian and conservative leaders welcomed the change. Since the law in question was virtually obsolete already, we might call its removal symbolic liberalism. Which may have been useful as an example to other European countries, were it not undermined by some of Ireland’s glaringly illiberal tendencies.
Consider this: Thomas Emlyn, who is thought to be the last person prosecuted for blasphemy in Ireland, was prosecuted for publishing a book that questioned the divinity of Christ. That was in 1703. But the Prohibition of Incitement to Hatred Act, which prevents citizens from publishing, distributing, or displaying written material considered to be “threatening, abusive or insulting” or “likely to stir up hatred,” was passed in 1989.
Indeed, some prominent thought leaders think that the provisions of existing “hate crime” laws do not go far enough. For instance, the Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL) has a new report, “Lifecyle of a Hate Crime,” concluding that there is “a policy vacuum” at present and that “the State, as the principal duty bearer, has a responsibility to send a clear message to society that hate crime is not tolerated.” But who decides what’s hateful?
The ICCL is funded by the European Commission. And certainly, supranational European bodies are quite capable of making top-down rules of this nature. In 2011, an Austrian woman was convicted by Vienna Regional Criminal Court for likening the Prophet Mohammed to a pedophile and saying that he “liked to do it with children.” (It is well documented that the Prophet of Islam took a bride who was six years old when he was in his 50s, and consummated the marriage when she was nine.) After a number of unsuccessful appeals to higher courts in Austria, the case appeared before the European Court of Human Rights.
This week the ECHR ruled that her comments were not protected by the European gold standard of freedom of expression (Article 10 of the EU convention). The court explained that her words were capable of “stirring up prejudice and putting at risk religious peace” and “likely to incite religious intolerance” (sound familiar, Ireland?), which made them “beyond the permissible limits of an objective debate.”
What kind of message does this send the international community? Only yesterday, the Pakistan Supreme Court pardoned a Christian mother of five who has been on death row for almost eight years for comments about Mohammed. The penalties might be different, but the logic is the same.
To anyone paying attention to the erosion of religious freedom in Europe and other parts of the world, Ireland’s rejection of blasphemy laws was an opportunity for clarity. For heralding a religious freedom that is, necessarily, universal. By explaining that what it really means is putting up with beliefs and ideas that you don’t like.
Ireland could have, for instance, inserted a new sentence establishing freedom of thought and conscience. But it didn’t bother with that, possibly because those behind the change were less concerned with true liberal values than with championing progressive dogmas.
Charles Flanagan, the Irish minister for justice and equality, said:
Ireland is rightly proud of our reputation as a modern, liberal society. The world has watched in recent years as we have taken landmark decisions as a people to change our Constitution with regard to some of the deepest personal matters when we voted Yes to marriage equality and repealing the Eighth Amendment.
But what have abortion and gay marriage got to do with blasphemy laws? Obviously, there is a historic link — Ireland is rejecting its Christian heritage. Some are delighted by that. Fair enough. But is that really the point here?
It’s easy to see where Europe will end up if it continues to put politics before principles. In 2014, for example, Christian bakers from Northern Ireland were asked to write “Support Gay Marriage” on a cake and politely declined. For this they were found guilty of unlawful discrimination by both the Belfast County Court and the Court of Appeals. Last month, after quite the struggle, they were finally exonerated by the U.K. Supreme Court.
It is no coincidence that in the unanimous decision, the U.K. justices took their cue from the U.S. Supreme Court (America has a much stronger understanding of religious freedom), outlining a clear distinction between refusing a customer on the grounds of his sexuality and refusing a specific item on the grounds of conscience.
Thankfully, in that case, common sense prevailed. However, illiberalism is marching across Europe under the guise of “peace” and “progress.”
So yes, the Irish are quite right to reject archaic blasphemy laws. But until they make a consistent, universal approach a priority, the symbolism is that of hypocrisy.